At the Movies
“A Star is Born” Aims for the Stratosphere
By Noah Gittell
Hollywood is built on myths of re-invention, so it seems only natural that “A Star is Born,” one of its iconic stories about itself, never stops being remade. The third reinvention of the classic Hollywood story of love, fame, and loss stars Bradley Cooper (he also directs) as an alcoholic country-pop star and Lady Gaga as his discovery and eventual successor. The two actors are magnificent on screen, even as the film surrounding them sometimes fails to live up to their dynamic performances. No matter – every time the film loses its narrative thread, here comes Lady Gaga with a show-stopping number. Every time she sings, the film reinvents itself.
This newest incarnation begins when Jackson Maine (Cooper) wanders into a drag bar looking for a drink. Through the haze, he sees Ally (Gaga), the only cisgender female in the bar, performing “La Vie En Rose,” and he is immediately smitten. So are we. Their courtship seems a little quick, but it works because it is modeled after the way we in the audience fall in love with pop stars. It doesn’t take much, just a song and a glance. They have a drink together, and she defends him from a drunken, aggressive fan. She sings him an original song of hers, and he swoons.
Do they really fall in love with each other, or just with each other’s art? The film draws no distinction. At his next concert, he arranges for her to watch from the side stage, and then, with no warning, brings her up to debut in front of thousands of people one of her songs. Her self-actualization as an artist simulates a courtship, and it’s not entirely earned. In one of many plot holes that will infuriate musicians (don’t get me started on Cooper’s guitar chops), he has somehow already come up with a complete arrangement of a song he heard sung the night before in a parking lot.
Scrutiny gets brushed aside, however, the moment she starts singing. It’s impossible to tell if Gaga is really a talented actress – or if she has just found a role perfectly suited to her — but she is inarguably magnificent on the stage within the screen. These songs are far more emotional than the kitschy pop songs that have made her famous, and she digs deeper in her interpretation. Her first tune, “Shallow,” will get all the attention, but her next song, “I’ll Always Remember Us This Way” resonates the most. The film could have ended after this number — one hour in — and we would all have gotten our money’s worth.
But the show must go on. As Ally’s career ascends, Jack begins to spiral out. He gets clean for a while, but relapses in a public way, embarrassing Ally and creating a distance between them. The elation of the first half gives ways to pain and heartbreak. Much like the upcoming addiction drama “Beautiful Boy,” the film treats Jackson’s alcoholism with a refreshing matter-of-factness. It doesn’t ask us to judge, psychoanalyze, or even forgive him. It only wants us to witness the destruction his addiction has on his life and hers.
The approach is only mildly successful, however, when we come to know our protagonists so little. The script, co-written by Cooper, relays Jack’s tragic backstory – orphaned as a teenager, raised by his much older brother — but Cooper’s performance fails to uncover any more complex truths. It is similar to his work in “American Sniper,” in which he played a character who hid himself under downturned eyes and another gruff voice. It’s effective in theory but less so in practice.
Lady Gaga is given even less to work with. Her character has no back story. We know nothing of her childhood or past relationships. It doesn’t matter so much when she’s singing, but when the affair starts to fall apart – when we’re supposed to care about them the most – the lack of characterization makes it difficult to fully invest in her.
Still, this is the deal we make with melodrama. We forsake real, three-dimensional humans in favor of deep feeling, externalized through stylistic flourishes and, in this case, soaring, unforgettable music. The reach of “A Star is Born” may ultimately exceed its grasp, but it succeeds by the standard to which musicals typically hold themselves: you walk out humming a tune, and you feel sufficiently entertained.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue